Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Farewell Don Tuck - SF's greatest chronicler passes

The past is another country; they do things differently there.

That quote went through my mind when I recently heard of the passing of an old friend, trail-blazing bibliographer Don Tuck.

TUCK Don Henry
Passed away peacefully
at Ringwood Private
Hospital, Melbourne.
Formerly of Ulverstone and Hobart, Tasmania.
Beloved husband of the late Audrey Jean, father of Marcus,
father-in-law of Rowena and devoted Grandpa of Jessica, Lucie and Hugh.
Resting in Peace.

Like a few young men of the pre-war generation, he developed an interest in science-fiction, a minor genre often dismissed as “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” SF was a small niche market and it would have been possible for a dedicated fan to read all the science-fiction published in English every year. Unlike most of his fellow afficianados, he began collecting information with a view to compiling a book that would include all the available facts about the genre.

This would have been a challenging project had he been in New York or London, but he had been born in Launceston, Tasmania, as far from the wellsprings of the literature as one could get!

In those days, there was no internet, no e-mail. To query someone overseas about a fact, you wrote the question down in an air-mail letter. If you were lucky, you might get a reply in three or four weeks.

The situation was not helped by the fact that the Australian government had banned the importing of American magazines in 1940 as a war-time economy (in fact the ban lasted until 1959). This meant that the magazines that were the staple of serious science-fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s Astounding, could only be obtained by barter or depending on the goodwill of fellow fans abroad. Many of Don’s magazines from the 1940s bore the rubber stamp of the Bermuda Post Office, through which they passed on their long sea voyage to Australia.

Never deterred, Don plodded on through the decade, collecting and storing data while also moving to Hobart, holding down a job at the local zinc company and starting a family.

The story in his family was that when he married Audrey, her father volunteered to help him move house. After watching box after box of science fiction and fantasy publications loaded into the truck, he turned to his daughter and blurted out “Audrey, you’ve married a nut!” Audrey’s response is not recorded.

Don published a series of four articles about prominent SF authors in the newsletter of the Melbourne SF Club, Etherline, in 1954. Those outside his circle of friends may not have appreciated these were just the tip of the iceberg, for Don was nearing the completion of his first book on the subject.

 A Handbook of Science Fiction and Fantasy was published in 1954. Don had typed up all 154 single-spaced pages on his manual typewriter onto stencils and ran them off on a duplicator machine. No photocopiers in those days! Self-publishing was the only option since no mainstream publisher would have considered such a book for a moment.

(To put things in context, the first “real” book about science-fiction was New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis in 1960. The first book about science-fiction films, incidentally, wouldn’t come along until 1970 when John Baxter wrote Science Fiction in the Cinema.)

The Handbook caused a sensation in the science fiction community and there was wide approval for the scope and detail of the work. Far from resting on his laurels, Don continued collecting information and in 1959 published and revised and enlarged edition. This now ran to two volumes, a total of 400 pages!

No wonder he received a special award from the 1962 World SF Convention. The 1950s was a time of great growth in the field, and Don’s works covered it in great detail.

Still residing in Hobart, Don kept in touch by mail with fellow collectors around the world, a common practice at the time. His only face-to-face contacts were occasional evenings at his home in Lindisfarne when half a dozen SF connoisseurs would gather to discuss the latest developments in the field and admire Don’s collection. Following an hour or two of gossip, Audrey would serve refreshments and the meeting would break up. I was privileged to be invited along when Don discovered I lived just across the river from him, and he was always a courteous and charming host despite my youthful enthusiasm.

I was aware that he was still collating facts and reviews, but nobody was expecting the final flowering of his efforts. Don had been in touch with the American specialist publisher Advent, and in 1974 they began the publication of his greatest achievement, the three-volume set The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1968: A Bibliographic Survey of the Fields of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction through 1968. These were three big books, and every page was packed with text (no illustrations) and detailed entries about books, authors and publishers.

Reviews were enthusiastic and 99% positive. Don was perplexed by a review by Barry Malzberg who reproached him for leaving out such famous authors as L. Sprague de Camp. It turned out that Malzberg, slightly confused about the niceties of alphabetical order, had looked under C rather than D!

The final volume rolled off the presses in 1983, and Don could be forgiven for finally drawing a line under his bibliographic career. After fifty years he deserved some time off.

The collection of old magazines and books was sold off to a university library on the mainland, and filled an entire moving van. Previous to that, Don had invited me to drop in and have a look around his garage. It was lined from floor to ceiling with paperbacks from all around the world. “Anything you want, just pick it out,” he said. I filled the back of my car with rare items at bargain-basement prices. (I wonder what they would have fetched if e-Bay had been around in those days?)

The success of his magnum opus led to his being invited to be Guest of Honour at the 1975 World SF Convention being held in Melbourne. Don was unable to make it to the convention in person, but several authors and fans were so determined to meet him that they added a trip to Tasmania to their Australian visit. We had a large dinner at a city hotel for the visitors.

After that, I lost touch with Don. He retired from the Zinc works, and he and his wife moved to Victoria, closer to his children and grandchildren. The increasingly frenetic and profitable genre that was modern science-fiction held less appeal for him (though he and Audrey did enjoy the first Star Wars film).

There were many other reference works about science-fiction in the years to come, but nearly all of them were quick to acknowledge their debt to Don’s comprehensive surveys of the field.

He had little contact with science-fiction fans in later years, and aside from a Christmas card or two, I gradually fell out of touch with him. It was a sad moment to learn he had died aged 87. I will always remember him as an agreeable host, a loyal friend and an industrious scholar. R.I.P. Donald H. Tuck.


Tas Accommodation said...

I just wanna thank you for sharing your information and your site or blog this is simple but nice article I've ever seen i like it i learn something today.

Chris Nelson said...

Hi Mike,

I'm including a piece on Don for my next fanzine and was wondering if I could quote some of your blog? Cheers,

Chris Nelson